Why This TED Senior Fellow Says Hollowed-Out Asteroids Are the Future of Spaceships

Friday, 27 April 2018 - 10:22AM
Technology
Space
ESA
Friday, 27 April 2018 - 10:22AM
Why This TED Senior Fellow Says Hollowed-Out Asteroids Are the Future of Spaceships
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Image credit: Nils Faber & Angelo Vermeulen

Most people imagine generation ships as being giant ring-worlds, like Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, or gleaming metal ships, like the one in WALL-E. The team at Delft University of Technology, however, is imagining something much more radical: a hollowed-out asteroid that's been converted into an interstellar starship, equipped with a 'bioreactor' that can sustain multiple generations of crew as they make their way between solar systems.



The so-called "Evolving Asteroid Starship" design is the product of Delft University's DSTART group, which is made of students and researchers from several fields working together.

 

The goal is to create the blueprint for a ship that can not only travel to another star, but that can also address the problems that will inevitably arise from keeping several generations of people cooped up in a single ship—problems that writers like Kim Stanley Robinson have already outlined in detail.

 

One of the biggest issues is creating a self-sustaining ecosystem, where waste is recycled into useful material or energy to produce food.


"We need self-sustaining and evolvable space technology capable of enduring the many decades needed to journey from our Solar System to another," said Angelo Vermeulen, the leader of DSTART.

 

"As part of that, we are looking at the kind of regenerative life-support system pioneered by the ESA-led MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) programme."



The MELiSSA project consists of a special type of algae that traps carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, creating a rudimentary 'bioreactor'.

 


E|A|S (Evolving Asteroid Starship), preparatory study by DSTART, 2017. from Angelo Vermeulen on Vimeo.

MELiSSA's goal is to be able to recycle organic waste and carbon dioxide and turn it into potable water, food, and air, creating the basis for a self-sustaining life-support system.



The DSTART team will present a computer simulation of their starship's MELiSSA system next month in Rome, where they will stress-test it and explore next steps.

 

In the meantime, you can learn more about DSTART and Angelo Vermeulen here. If you're interested in learning more about generation ships (and their problems), check out this article by Kim Stanley Robinson.

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